Written by: Brad Rudner
It’s not easy having a child that has severe food allergies. Some allergens are easier to handle than others and some, like peanuts, are so widespread that awareness and strategies are fairly well established in many communities. However, when your child has multiple food allergens requiring them to carry epinephrin, navigating grocery shopping, eating out, school lunches and birthday parties can be daunting and stressful.
Trust me, I know. My eldest daughter, Ayla, started displaying eczema by 6 weeks of age which seemed to be related to my wife’s consumption of citrus while breastfeeding. When my wife cut out citrus, Ayla’s eczema subsided. Then as Ayla started eating whole foods, she would get hives around her mouth from dairy and other ingredients. At 18 months of age, she had an anaphylactic reaction after consuming a marinated halibut at a family gathering. We weren’t sure if it was the fish or seasoning but the swollen lips, the bloodshot eyes, and raspy voice were enough to shake us up.
After this incident, we took our allergist’s advice and got a couple Epipens to carry with us at all times. We had switched to a new allergy doctor when the first one concluded that our dog was causing our daughter’s allergies. She had said “it’s either your daughter or your dog” which didn’t sit well with me and didn’t make any sense, logically or scientifically. Our new allergist quickly pointed out that if Ayla was touching our dog and not reacting, topically or asthmatically, then our dog was not the cause of any allergies. In fact, being around animals has shown to reduce allergies in kids.
The field of immunology, and more specifically allergies, is fairly new, constantly developing and with many unknowns. I will say that many doctors have not fully grasped the integral role of the gut microbiome and intestinal hyper-permeability, leaky gut, on food sensitivities and allergic conditions. I’ll discuss more on this later.
By the time we had completed skin and blood tests, it was determined that Ayla was severely allergic to peanuts, nuts, dairy, eggs, shellfish, fish, sesame and mustard. Having this many allergens is really challenging and it is particularly hard to avoid dairy and eggs, as these are often baked into foods.
While we considered ourselves healthy eaters, our scare with Ayla’s first major reaction caused us to be on the defensive and our food choices prioritized safety over nutrient density. We continued to eat salads and lots of produce but we often served Ayla a dish of her own and frequented fast food establishments who overtly listed allergens and ingredients. We bought packaged goods that were clearly labelled to not contain her allergens and favoured processed soy products because they rarely contained anything she couldn’t eat. A hospital dietician had actually recommended soy. Sugar was okay because candy seldom has anything real in it that comes close to being one of her dangerous ingredients.
We continued this way until Ayla was around 6 years old. At this point, due to the added burden of my wife’s diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and my Hashimoto’s autoimmune disease, our research to improve our health intensified. This led us to the paleo approach and the effects of diet on intestinal function, immunity, inflammation and chronic disease. We had been label reading experts but really we were looking at the wrong things on the label and reading labels was part of the problem itself. You see, if you don’t eat processed food, there’s no label to read and you don’t need to worry about some added ingredient hiding inside the package mixed in with a list of fifteen other, hard to pronounce, ingredients.
When we went paleo, not only did our health improve but all of our conditions subsided as well. Although some of Ayla’s allergens are promoted in a paleo approach, they can be more easily avoided as whole ingredients. It is also far easier to monitor what she is eating when you can identify the ingredients because they were bought as an easily recognizable whole food. In contrast to the packaged foods you find in the middle aisles of a grocery store, whole foods are unlikely to have cross contamination from unidentified allergens.
I am signed up to get email alerts from an anaphylaxis association and it is actually quite concerning how many times a week I would get notice of an unmarked allergen being found in processed food. If you think about this, it means that even when it doesn’t say it on the box, you can be exposed to food that will cause a full blown allergic reaction. That’s scary stuff!
With our shift to paleo, life became simpler, our food became friendlier and our health, mental and physical, improved in many ways. I could detail all the advantages of going paleo for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimotos thyroiditis autoimmune diseases but that’s for another time. Here, I can confidently say that our embracing a paleo diet for Ayla, not only kept her safer, but also resulted in improved skin health, focus, digestion and increased the good bacteria in her gut. With these changes, her immune system improved and amazingly, she is no longer allergic to eggs, dairy, mustard and tuna fish.
I am confident that her gut will continue to improve as well as her immune system. Deep down, I believe it is possible to eradicate these allergies all together. It may require more intense approaches to shift her microbiome further and it probably would’ve been more effective had we started earlier or even prenatally. Still, the improvements in our lives, our stress levels and our sense of empowerment have been dramatic as is.
With the foods that comprise the paleo diet and those that are removed, Ayla’s leaky gut has vastly improved. The inflammation in her body has been reduced and food particles no longer are crossing into her blood stream like they did before. Her body doesn’t feel it is under attack from some of the foods that use to cause an autoimmune response for her.
You can start being allergic, or just sensitive, to food at any time in your life but with the right balance of healthy fats, like Omega 3, clean animal protein, from antibiotic and hormone free grass-fed cows and the like, plus plenty of vegetables, preferably organic, you are promoting a healthy gut flora, reducing permeability in the intestinal lining and therefore, fortifying your immune system to react appropriately to the things it encounters.
We are not always paleo purist but the tenants underlie our daily lives. When we modify it is with only the highest quality substitutes, like raw, organic cheeses. Still, no longer do we retreat to fast food chains for their clearly marked ingredient guides. Our visits to McDonald’s are only to use their reliably clean washrooms when we are in a bind. Our food shopping is quicker as we cruise the perimeter of the grocery store and save time not reading label after label. We feel at ease and energized by frequenting farmer’s markets where we can see what we are getting and speak to the farmers themselves.
Ayla is not defined by her allergies. She knows her allergens, can confidently talk about them and maturely handles her own safety. The fact that we all eat the same meal together as a family, has been one of the greatest things for bonding. Paleo has made us safer, healthier and stronger as a family.